And I'll try to remember to say "mobile phone" instead of "cellphone" while I'm over there
April 9, 2008 4:59 AM   Subscribe

Group of American tourists going to Europe. We need a mobile phone solution to stay in touch with each other.

I've found general cellphone advice for American tourists in Europe, but am looking for advice for phones and service for my specific situation. Some of the advice I've read says just go to a store when you get there and get a prepaid phone. But I'm wondering if that's the wisest idea for us. We're a group of American tourists going to the U.K. and Italy. Our total trip length is two weeks. A couple of us have American GSM phones, but most of us don't, and those that do would rather not return home to a $5,000 phone bill.

The purpose of these phones will be to talk to each other and make calls to local numbers near where we are, like to local restaurants. We don't need to call home. Our calls will be brief, so a high per-minute fee is not necessarily a bad thing, if the service makes up for it by being otherwise cheap.

What is a good cheap solution? Will the same phone and service work economically in the U.K. and Italy without any roaming charges? Can we save money by buying phones on eBay before our trip begins? Or by ordering from a prepaid service provider before our trip begins? What are some good service providers? Or is it really best to just go to a store when we get there?
posted by Dec One to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Europe lives on GSM 900/1800, so any phone that uses those bands will work all over the place. Get a sim-free phone (or sim-lock free, more accurately) while still in the US - electronics in the US are incredibly cheap (I'm looking at getting an iPhone from the US because it's so cheap vs any decent local phone). In europe, buy prepaid starter kits locally - just walk into any cell phone store/dealer/newspaper stand. From my experience, they run around 5-10 euro/quid and usually credit part of that expense as talk time credit. When you get to Italy use the UK cards until they run out and then just throw them away.

A general hint: roaming talk minutes tend to be VERY expensive, but text messages are quite cheap.
posted by jedrek at 5:11 AM on April 9, 2008

really best to just go to a store. remember that in sane parts of the world, phones aren't locked to their service providers ;) and mobiles are a lot more convenient and disposable.

you could buy a phone and SIM card when you get there, but then you'd have to hunt down a store and all. alternatively, these internet companies rent out european phones and SIM cards:

- Cellular Abroad: GSM phones and SIM cards. Promo code "SLOWTRAV" for $10 off.
- Telestial: GSM phones and phone cards. Code "SLOWTRAV" for 10% discount all purchases.
- Context|Rome: Rents GSM phones with SIM cards for Italy (click "Services").

Here's a useful site with more info on using mobiles in Europe:
Information on mobiles in Europe:
posted by Xianny at 5:12 AM on April 9, 2008

I would suggest you take the phones that work in Europe with you and swap the SIMs. Then buy some sim cards while you are there. I would buy a sim in the UK for use in the UK and a sim in Italy for use there. You can buy these in either mobile phone shops or newsagents or supermarkets.

For those without compatible phones you can buy pre-pay phones in Tesco (huge supermarket chain) for £15.

I am sure you can get similar phones in Italy for similar prices. Italy is one of the most saturated mobile phone markets in the world. There are sure to be very cheap deals there too.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 5:15 AM on April 9, 2008

You can get really cheap pre-pay deals here in the UK. You can even get a free sim card and use your handset if they are GSM compatible.

Cheap sim only:

Cheap phone (although not the nicest!):

I don't think you'd do any better than heading to an Argos store and buying these. When you go to Italy you'd probably be able to do a similar thing over there. Or if you take the phones you bought in the UK you need to what you'll be paying... you can see a handy chart on this website: here. This will help you select which 'Pay As You Go' deal on which network you should get.
posted by tomw at 5:16 AM on April 9, 2008

Probably best just to go to a store. Find an ASDA (a Wallmart subsidiary) or a Tesco, buy prepaid phones (expect to pay around $40 each).

Airtime is relatively cheap if you're all using the same network or just calling local landline numbers. Most networks offer several different tariffs, normally offering a certain number of free hours per month for a fixed fee ($20-$30). Some tariffs offer cheaper calls to a nominated country. Most UK networks provide very good coverage provided you don't stray too far into the wild.

Check the websites of places like Asda, Tesco, O2, Carphone Warehouse, Argos etc. and find the deal that makes most sense.

If you then travel elsewhere in Europe you'll generally find yourself on a partner network, which could be quite expensive, depending on what arrangement they have with your UK provider. One way around this might be to have the phones unlocked (almost every UK high street and market has shops providing this service, generally for around $10-15). Once unlocked, you should be able to purchase a cheap prepaid SIM card in Italy - you'll have to make the call as to whether that's worth the trouble.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:20 AM on April 9, 2008

I'd recommend buying cheap-o UNLOCKED GSM phones off of eBay or Craigslist and then getting SIM cards in the 1st country that you land in. Vodaphone and Orange are two companies that seem work in pretty much ever corner of Europe.

With the pay-as-you-go, make sure to turn on "Euro-roaming" (that's what O2 called it at least) which made calls in other European countries cheaper.
posted by k8t at 5:41 AM on April 9, 2008

roaming talk minutes tend to be VERY expensive, but text messages are quite cheap.

Best advice in the thread.

You might want to consider United Mobile. They have low rates in most European countries (€0.29/min) compared to other roaming providers. The trade-off is you won't get competitive rates for within-country dialing—it will still be €0.29/min. Not sure how good service is.
posted by grouse at 5:46 AM on April 9, 2008

Also, not that you were asking, but... if it is a relatively large group, why get mobile phones and deal with the hassle? Divide up in the AM, pick a place to meet for lunch, pick a place to meet for dinner and be done with it...

In my experience, if you all don't know a city well anyway, mobile phones to organize meeting up and all that were more of a hassle than a benefit.
posted by k8t at 5:52 AM on April 9, 2008

A blogger wrote a piece about this very thing on the (full disclosure) blog I run.
posted by nitsuj at 6:38 AM on April 9, 2008

I would buy a sim in the UK for use in the UK and a sim in Italy for use there.

Ditto ClanvidHorse. Note that to buy a SIM card in Italy you'll need to have your passport with you. The prepaid plans are called prepagato .

You can buy credit recharges in tobacco stores & some newsstands. They're provider specific scratch cards & come in various denominations; you call the toll-free service number & follow the voice menu to input the recharge PIN number, or send an SMS with the pin number. Instructions in Italian are printed on the cards.

Providers here are TIM, Wind, Vodafone, & Tre.
posted by romakimmy at 6:55 AM on April 9, 2008

@jedrek: In my limited experience it is NOT true that texting is cheap when roaming. I went to Argentina last year and came back with over $200 in charges due to texting over my 3-week trip. Learned that one the hard way.
posted by dondiego87 at 7:39 AM on April 9, 2008

Buy an already unlocked phone from any dodgy looking no-brand phone shop. Tell them you want a £10 phone with a PAYG orange or vodaphone sim. Or, if you are not happy to frequent dodgy looking shops then buy a cheap PAYG phones at the carphonewarehouse - as they supply phones for all the networks they sometimes come unlocked to a network. Stay away from motorola as they seem a bit trickier to unlock, stay away from these nokia models 1100, 1110,1600 as they are real tough to unlock (that is why they sell them so cheap). If needed, try unlocking services online should cost about £3.
posted by priorpark17 at 7:52 AM on April 9, 2008

In my limited experience it is NOT true that texting is cheap when roaming.

Obviously you will need to carefully check the rates of your provider. It certainly can be a lot cheaper than making calls, so if your provider rips you off for texts abroad, try someone else.

If needed, try unlocking services online should cost about £3.

Not all phones can be unlocked online. Some have to be sent somewhere remote, and this can cost upwards of £15.
posted by grouse at 8:41 AM on April 9, 2008

The only piece of advice I can offer that differs from anything above is, do not buy a SIM card in an airport, especially in England - they're WAY cheaper at Tesco or at any corner shop.
posted by pdb at 9:05 AM on April 9, 2008

As long as you stick with prepaid sim cards, you can't get surprised with a high bill. You'll just run out of minutes faster than you expected and have to top up again. In the UK, you can buy more minutes for your phone at any supermarket, gas station, news stand, post office... pretty much anywhere. You could probably get phones cheaper on ebay, but the easiest thing will be to go to whichever major supermarket (The big three are Tesco, Asda, and Sainsburys) that is nearest to your first stop and buy their cheapest payg handset. If you need them unlocked, most towns in the UK will have someone on the high street who has a big sign saying they unlock phones. (Or if it is a Nokia you can do it yourself if you have internet access.)
posted by happyturtle at 10:27 AM on April 9, 2008

-You can buy unlocked GSM cell phones on ebay for relatively cheap (~$50 for something decent and new), just ensure that they cover the GSM frequencies most commonly used in the countries you're traveling to.

-There are basically 4 cellular frequencies for GSM phones; 800 (850?), 900, 1800, and 1900 mhz. Italy and the UK use mostly 900 and 1800, depending on which network you get on.

-As others have recommended hold off on getting the SIM cards until you get into the country and even then hold off until you go someplace less likely to gouge- like Tesco or a local cellular shack.

-Texting is relatively cheap if you're not roaming; texting from one european carrier to another is usually on the cheap side, but if you send text messages while roaming (for example using T-Mobile US while abroad) you're paying $.35 a pop. (From personal experience with T-Mobile- if you do need to send a text message while roaming abroad, send it as a MMS (multimedia) instead of SMS; T-Mobile charges $.25 for MMS messages, domestic or roaming, while SMSes are $.05 domestic, $.35 roaming)

-I'm not sure if it would fit your needs at all, but will anyone have a device that can run Skype, like a PocketPC/Treo/Smartphone (apparently there's a Skype mobile handset available in the UK)? It wouldn't really help for getting separated parties to meet up, but might be helpful if you need to make a bunch of local calls or even calls back home. It would require having access to WiFi, but the last time I was in Europe I was able to make most of my calls from my laptop using the hotel's free wireless.
posted by Challahtronix at 10:46 AM on April 9, 2008

When I went to france in March, I used a phone from TravelCell and was very satisfied with it (although I haven't gotten the bill yet -- it takes them a little while to gather all the records, but I don't expect it to be that much)
posted by majikstreet at 12:00 PM on April 9, 2008

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